Russia praises Council of Europe amid bitter row

Moscow (AFP) –


Russia on Thursday praised its membership in the Council of Europe ahead of a key summit suggesting Moscow had no immediate plans to quit the continent's top rights watchdog following a bitter row.

The noticeable change of tone comes ahead of the watchdog's key meetings on Thursday and Friday which may adopt a document that Kiev claims will ease pressure on Russia despite its role in the Ukraine crisis.

As the two-day meetings of the watchdog's Committee of Ministers kick off in Helsinki on Thursday, Kiev threatened to revisit its ties with the Council of Europe if Moscow was allowed to get the upper hand in the dispute.

Kiev is afraid the council will on Friday adopt a document that will help Russia return to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) which deprived the Moscow of voting and other rights after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin cancelled his participation in the Helsinki meetings, sending his deputy instead.

Lawmaker Volodymyr Ariev, head of Ukraine's PACE delegation, who has seen the draft document, said it might help Russia return to PACE on its own terms.

- 'Serious steps' -

If pressure on Russia eases, Ukraine is "ready to take very serious steps," he told AFP.

"We are ready to seriously reconsider our involvement with the Council of Europe."

He accused France and Germany of supporting Russia over Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic countries.

The 47-member council-- which is not linked to the European Union -- promotes democracy and the rule of law across Europe.

It is the only major legal mechanism that tethers Russia to Europe.

Russia has been under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights -- overseen by the rights organisation -- for more than 20 years, becoming its biggest purveyor of cases.

But after the annexation of Crimea Moscow's ties with the council reached a crisis point, and Russia threatened to quit.

Moscow suspended its annual 33 million euro ($37 million) payment to the Strasbourg-based council -- about seven percent of its budget -- and has not participated in PACE sessions.

Russia could be suspended after two years of non-payment of contributions -- from June this year.

More importantly, Moscow may not be able to participate in the June election of the council's next secretary general, and Russia has warned that if this happens it may go.

A Russian departure -- dubbed "Ruxit" -- would have far-reaching consequences including the possible reinstatement of capital punishment.

- Copious praise -

But on Thursday, Moscow put out un upbeat statement praising the Council of Europe.

The foreign ministry statement said its Council of Europe membership had helped improve Russia's justice and penitentiary systems and even sports over the past two decades.

"Russia is interested in preserving and strengthening the Council of Europe as one of the most authoritative and respectable international organisations on the European continent," the foreign ministry said.

Moscow's top diplomat Sergei Lavrov, who is set to attend the talks, indicated the non-payment of contributions may not be discussed publicly during the Helsinki meetings, in an apparent win for Russia.

Asked whether he expected the meetings to address non-payment issues, he told reporters Wednesday: "Nothing of the kind will be discussed."

He said a draft document had been put together on the issue, but did not elaborate.

"I am hoping that justice will be restored," Lavrov added.

Rights campaigners warn of a potential intensification of a clampdown on civil society, worsening abuse of prisoners, and a new wave of emigration, if Russia quits the Council of Europe.

Ruxit could also weaken the council itself and create new fault lines in Europe.